Nelson Polsby Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Institutional Change in the U.S. Congress: Conversation with Nelson 
    W. Polsby, Heller Professor of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley; 9/4/02 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Congress

Let's talk a little about Congress. Your new book is the culmination of a forty-year affair with the Congress?

Well, it's been forty years since I've studied Congress and have kept up with it as best I could. Now, here's an example. Political scientists get their agenda, obviously, from the community in which we work, but also from life, from current events, from politics. The most important thing, probably, that happened to the House of Representatives over the last fifty years, say, was that it went from a body dominated by the conservative coalition of Democrats -- Dixiecrats mostly -- and Republicans, to a condition in which they were dominated by the majority of the majority party, which was liberal Democrats. In other words, it liberalized. This is, obviously, before the big change in the mid-nineties, when the Republicans took over. But over the sweep of time, it was the conservative coalition giving way to a programmatic, liberal majority of the majority party. And the question is, why did it happen? It's a political science question, "Why did it happen?" Although, in principle, it could also be a current events question, "Why did it happen?" But in any event, I took that as the theme for this book that I've just written. My conclusion was, as you know, "air-conditioning." Okay, now, what happened?

A simple way to make a complex point.

Let me give you the forty-second version. It went this way. In order for the House to liberalize, it was necessary for the majority of the majority party to find its voice. The majority of the majority party could not find its voice when the Democratic caucus, the Democrats, were in the majority. The Democratic caucus was moribund, could not meet and could not act because it had so many Dixiecrats in it.

Conservative Democrats from the South.

From the South. All right, now, what happened? Well, the Dixiecrats disappeared. Why did they disappear? So then we moved backward. They disappeared because of the rise of the Republican Party in the South. Sooner or later, conservatives, instead of being Dixiecrats, became Republicans. Now why did they become Republicans? Well, because a sufficient number of people who were Republicans moved to the South from the North. And the question is, why did they move South? This Dixiecrat phenomenon is 100 years old.

That is, the phenomenon that put the Dixiecrats in their positions of power?

Yes, it's 100 years old. From the Civil War and the Reconstruction, onward. So why did that finally break down? Why do Republicans suddenly appear down there? And the answer is, they migrated down there. Why did they migrate down there? Well, basically, a fair number of them had spent winters down there, but with the introduction in the early 1950s of residential air-conditioning, people began to stay down there. It was interesting to me that the first safe Republican seat in the South, outside of the ones up in the Appalachian Mountains -- there are only four or five of those -- but the first safe Republican seat under the new dispensation was St. Petersburg, Florida, which was a winter resort, and it happened in 1954. And then Dallas, Texas.

That was Bruce Alger's seat.

Bruce Alger. That's right, you're a Texan, so you remember those things. But anyway, that seemed to be it. Now, how did I verify this? Well, there is some demographic material, which seems to show this, and, also, of course, I went around and talked to some Southern Republican congressman. They told me some wonderful stories about how they had become Republican, or their parents had become Republican. And it was all about Northerners moving down and making it possible.

And an example would be Trent Lott, who originally was a Dixiecrat, right?

Trent Lott was originally a Democrat. He worked for a congressman from Pascagula, Bill Comer. When Bill Comer retired in 1972, Trent Lott went home, switched parties, ran for a seat, and won. So that was short.

You're being humorous. I mean, obviously, air-conditioning is key, but you're really talking about the modernization of the South, the movement of people to the cities and that whole complex of technological change.

Sure, that's right. Well, all right, if you want me to begin with the tractor. You begin with pesticides. You begin with machinery for picking cotton, driving people off the land.

And not just technology, but also changes with the Voting Rights Bill and so on.

The Voting Rights Bill strengthened the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and encouraged conservative Democrats to move to the Republicans.

Now, it's interesting, because taking this long-term perspective as you analyze reform, book coverin a way you're offering an answer to people of my generation in the sixties who argued for change, but couldn't get it right away, because you couldn't get the legislation through the Congress as long as the Dixiecrats were in place. So what you're suggesting is there is a long-term change and an evolution that allows the liberal agenda to be implemented.

Well, it happened that way.

Hence the need to explain this process over time?

Well, yes. I do think it's important, because you're speaking now from the standpoint of somebody who wants to manipulate the system, or to succeed in the system. And that, in my opinion, requires knowledge. This is my attempt to convince people that this is what you needed to know in order to get what you want.

Let's talk a little more about the Congress. Who are examples of people you see in the Congress whom you've known or written about or studied, who emerged as formidable leaders in the system?

Well, you've already learned that I have a very individual view of what leadership is.

Tell us what that is.

All right. For a legislative body, leaders are not necessarily the people who have the best press releases and who make the most ringing speeches. My view is that the most significant leaders of Congress are generally those people who are trusted by their colleagues to frame issues for them. I've known a number of people who are that way. Tom Foley was very much that way when he was there. And my good friend Carl Elliott, who was a Congressman from Alabama and was deeply trusted by his colleagues, including by people who didn't agree with him about things. He was, of course, a liberal, and, although he didn't show it on Civil Rights -- couldn't show it on Civil Rights, given the situation in Alabama -- nevertheless, when Carl Elliott told people something, they were able to put it in the bank and they were able to act on it. So my view is that people who are, certainly, most interesting to me are the people who operate within the group structure in such a way as to give an orientation and information to their colleagues, which leads them to decide the way they do.

But are these people, in addition, visionaries in a sense that they point to a future route that may not be possible at this point?

I think some are and some aren't. I'm not terribly impressed by people who take the long future as a benchmark. Bob Dole used to say his vision was, "Let's survive until lunch." Of course, the newspaper people demanded that he have a "vision thing," and it wasn't him. But some of these people certainly had quite a lot of idealism ... Carl Elliott was deeply convinced of the need for education, all up and down the system -- vocational education, language education, and higher education -- all kinds of education. In that sense, I suppose, he was a visionary, but I only say it because it's a compliment to him.

So you would place more emphasis on doing the job well?

The question is, what is the job? The job is seeing the relationship between what you're doing today and what can happen tomorrow.

What skills are involved in being able to do that successfully?

Patience, goodwill. It really helps to be a decent person in a legislative body, because people remember when you're not. But, you know, it takes all kinds. A place like the House of Representatives -- 435 people -- all kinds of people there and all kinds of people doing constructive work. And I must say, some of the nicest people there were not doing constructive work at all, because they didn't believe in it. So it's a very complicated story.

How important are principles for these actors? That is, commitment to a broader set of values?

It doesn't hurt.

It doesn't hurt. But it doesn't necessarily lead to success or failure, then?

Well, success is when you've got enough votes. I mean, in a legislative body, mind you.

We're in an era now, after 9/11, where foreign policy is very important again and very much on Congress's agenda. How well has Congress done this kind of work? Is it so different from what they normally do that it's harder, or can they adapt to these new challenges?

They certainly can adapt. The Senate has, of course, confirmation powers, treaty powers, those kinds of things. But the House of Representatives has mostly the power of the purse, appropriations powers. And so it's in the details. They can also do some other things, which include running timely investigations; so there are some things that they can do. But it isn't easy for Congress as a collectivity to have as big an impact on foreign policies they have on other forms of public policy.

Do you have any thoughts about how 9/11 and the response will affect the Congress and --

No.

-- other institutions of American government?

No, not really. Over the short run, it helped the presidency a lot. As it always the case, when we have a crisis associated with foreign affairs, we have what is called in our business the "rallying around the flag." And we got one, and that helps the president. Whether he can do much with it, other than attempt to ... For example, the creation of a Homeland Security operation, that strikes me as completely misguided. But they're going to get it, because it would be vaguely unpatriotic to oppose it on the grounds that it would be ineffective. Somewhere in one of my voluminous works, I define what a crisis is in public affairs. A crisis is a period where everybody believes that something must be done. That's a crisis. Obviously, 9/11 produced one. But it's much harder to claim ... it's certainly not a war in the sense that World War II was a war. They're claiming it's a war, but there's no particular nation state. We maybe creating one out of Iraq at this point, but it's hard to see how this will all play out. A "war against terrorism" is rather like the war against cancer. That is, there's no doubt about it that it's something we'd like to eradicate, but it's terribly difficult to figure out how to do it.

So it would be different than the crises that you discuss in your book, where, for example, in the Depression, World War II, the response to the Kennedy assassination, there was a more focused agenda about what the Congress could do in terms of legislation?

Well, they did a whole bunch of things, some of them related to the crises and some of them not. It was a mixed bag.

But in this case, we are dealing in a world of amorphous adversaries, and one gets the sense in the Homeland Security that it's sort of changing the signs on the doors and calling that a reorganization.

Well, if those were the only transaction costs, that would be swell, but I have a feeling those are not the only transaction costs.

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